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Subject: Selden Rodman, Writer and Folk Art Advocate

Dies at 93
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Date Posted: November 11, 2002 2:01:16 EDT

Selden Rodman, a polymathic poet, an iconoclastic critic of modern culture, the author of more than 40 books and a tireless promoter of Haitian and other folk art, died on Nov. 2 at a hospital in Ridgewood, N.J. He was 93.

Mr. Rodman, who lived in Oakland, N.J., played tennis two days before he died, probably cheating as usual, his wife, Carole, said. In 1932, he and a tennis partner defeated Ezra Pound one of the many literary giants Mr. Rodman knew in a unique intellectual life.

Mr. Rodman encountered, sought out and communed with some of the best known creative people of the 20th century. Born into a monied family in New York, he grew into a rebellious young man and ended up as a famous champion of the Western Hemisphere's folk arts, particularly Haitian paintings, which he called a "crystallization of joy." Intermediate stops included editing one of the most successful anthologies of modern poetry, writing essays and books on travel, and rocking the modern art establishment by branding Abstract Expressionism "the cerebral put-ons of the avant-garde."

Mr. Rodman first received wide attention in the early 1930's when he and a Yale classmate founded The Harkness Hoot, an acidic but celebrated detractor of everything from professors to the school's gothic architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote to applaud when the publication printed pictures of the steel girders underlying the university's new library along with a picture of the finished product. The Hoot called the girders better architecture, much to Wright's delight.

Rushing off to Europe without attending his graduation, Mr. Rodman looked up Pound, as well as James Joyce and Thomas Mann, and ingratiated himself, a lifelong talent. He would later write a book of essays describing his encounters with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell and Leon Trotsky.

"He could weasel his way in anywhere," said Gary Fountain, an English professor at Ithaca College who is writing Mr. Rodman's biography.

When he returned to New York, Alfred Bingham, a leader of left-wing causes, asked him to become his partner in a new magazine called Common Sense, which criticized the New Deal while remaining anti-Communist. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in "The Politics of Upheaval," called the magazine the most lively and interesting forum of radical discussion in the country.

Cary Selden Rodman was born in Manhattan on Feb. 19, 1909. His father, an architect, died before the boy was a year old, and he came to regard his mother as overprotective, Mr. Fountain said. But his mother's family fortune, which provided him a trust fund, greatly increased his lifelong freedom of choice.

His sister, Nancy, married Dwight Macdonald, the writer, who used her trust fund to help finance the startup of Partisan Review in the 1930's.

After his return from Europe, Mr. Rodman was introduced to Mr. Bingham, who was looking for a partner for his new magazine. Mr. Bingham wrote on politics and economics; Mr. Rodman handled cultural matters. He also persuaded W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Theodore Dreiser and Edmund Wilson to contribute articles. The youthful nature of his and Mr. Bingham's radicalism was suggested by an article in The New York Times in 1934 telling of their trying to get diners at the Waldorf-Astoria to leave in support of striking waiters. As they scuffled with house detectives, "Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker lent strong moral support at a nearby table," The Times said.

Mr. Rodman published his first poetry book, "Mortal Triumph and Other Poems," in 1932. He and Mr. Bingham published "Challenge to the New Deal" in 1935, and in 1938 he published his "New Anthology of Modern Poetry."

The anthology drew immediate attention for including selections not usually considered poetry, including African-American folk songs, light verse, choruses from the experimental theater and Bartolomeo Vanzetti's last plea to the court.

In 1938 Mr. Rodman visited Haiti for the first time and wrote a play about the Haitians' successful slave revolt against the French in 1803. Nelson Rockefeller, as the State Department official responsible for Latin America, delayed his induction into the Army so he could attend the premiere in Port-au-Prince in 1942. Mr. Rockefeller believed the play would foster pro-American feelings.

From 1943 to 1945 Mr. Rodman served in the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy agency.

Mr. Rodman's interest in art deepened after the war, and in 1947 he wrote "Horace Pippin, a Negro Painter in America," the first monograph on the artist. He also became co-director of Le Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince. It was the main exhibition center of the nave, voodoo-inspired art at the time its popularity was blossoming.

Mr. Rodman wrote many travel books as he prowled the Western Hemisphere in search of folk art. In "Mexican Journal," published in 1958, he demonstrated a favorite technique: asking leading personalities remarkably direct questions. For example, he asked the painter Tamayo what he thought of the painter Siqueiros, and vice versa.

Mr. Rodman was married to Eunice Clark, Hilda Clausen and Maia Wojciechowska, the author and onetime matador, all dead. His wife of 40 years, the former Carole Cleaver, who is also a writer, survives him along with his daughters Oriana Rodman and Carla Oschwald, both of Santa Fe, N.M.; his son, Van Nostrand Rodman of Oakland, N.J.; and three grandchildren.

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